I hear stories all the time about bad clients: clients who are abusive, clients who call unnecessary meetings at 4pm on a Friday, clients who won’t buy the work. But this is a story about a client who went way beyond all bounds.
I was a young account executive and was put on a new account at my agency. The account was one of the major American watch brands and it was among the first accounts that I handled. I was about twenty-four years old. I was very excited about the assignment - until I got to know the client.
It turned out that my client, the advertising director, was rough and crude. The first hint that this was going to be a difficult client was about two weeks after we started. The ad director cursed at me and insulted me because a messenger was delayed (no emails or faxes for documents then). Virtually every day, for no good reason, I was cursed at, insulted and told I was stupid and that my agency sucked. It was beyond unpleasant.
I went to my boss, the head of account management, and his advice was to not let it bother me and not to lose my cool. But it turned out that it was not just this particular ad director, the nastiness pervaded the watch company from the top down.
Sometime later, there was a big meeting and the president of the client company disagreed with something the president of my agency said. Out of the client’s mouth came a torrent of insults and curses the likes of which I never again heard in business. Truth is, it happened because the president of the agency offered an opinion. This barrage of insults was basically unprovoked, but it was too long ago for me to remember what or why.
At that point, the agency made a very good decision: do the best we could and look for another watch account with more genteel people.
In the meantime, there was an upcoming sales meeting at the Dellwood Country Club in Rockland County and I was asked to present the new advertising. I was about 24 years old and had never done that before. I was very nervous to present to their sales force. The presentation was to take place about 4pm.
At one o’clock there was an informal meeting among the agency and client executives to discuss the agency portion of the presentation. The meeting was so informal that those in attendance were just standing around. I don’t remember what was being discussed, but I offered an opinion. Whatever I said seemed to be agreed upon by others who were in the room. The client president was either angry or surprised that a kid should have an opinion and a good one at that. What happened next I can still see in my mind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. To this day, I don’t know what motivated this man, but he was clearly surprised or angry at me. He looked at me and said, “If you are so smart, what is the difference between a chronograph and a chronometer?” I knew the answer and gave it to him. (A chronograph is a stopwatch and a chronometer is a very well calibrated, accurate timepiece.)
This obnoxious client was shocked that I knew the answer. So shocked and excited that he actually went to punch me. I saw him make a fist, cock his arm and let go. I pulled back and in doing so, I lost my balance and his blow hit me on the shoulder. I did fall. I am not sure if he knocked me down or if I fell while ducking his punch. It was very surreal because I don’t think that anyone knew what to do or say. The agency president and client just kept on talking as if nothing had happened. I was just lying on the floor. No kidding. I was lying on the floor and they proceeded as if nothing had happened.
So I got myself up, walked out of the room and went home, which was about 25 minutes away in Westchester.
When I got home the phone was ringing. It was the agency president. He told me either to get back and make the presentation or I would be fired. I actually told him that I would only come back if the client apologized when I returned.
The client half-heartedly apologized. I made the presentation. I also resigned.
So when I hear stories about rough clients, I also smile to myself knowing what a truly bad client is all about.